Whitefish Avalanche Safety Workshop to Aid Winter Enthusiasts

Panel of experts to discuss snow science at annual event that encourages safe backcountry travel

For denizens of Northwest Montana with a stake in snow safety, the Flathead Avalanche Center’s annual report has become required reading.

It offers a detailed summary of the previous winter’s weather patterns and snow stability, provides vital information about the program’s rising profile in the region and metes out a lump-in-the-throat inducing review of “incidents” — near-misses, accidents, injuries, and fatalities that will make you double-check the beacon batteries and sign up for the snow-safety bulletin.

It’s the one section of the report that nobody wants to read and everybody needs to read, serving as a learning opportunity and a cringe-y call for caution that lingers with skiers and riders as they prepare for a season of backcountry adventure.

“Our aim is to objectively document what happened when things went wrong in hopes readers will learn lessons to keep things from going wrong for them,” Zach Guy, director of the Flathead Avalanche Center, said.

Accidents occur in the backcountry, and there’s a heightened risk when winter sports enthusiasts recreate in avalanche-prone terrain. But knowing how to minimize that risk by evaluating terrain and conditions, and by making smart, efficient decisions, dramatically reduces the hazard, experts say.

Enter this year’s Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop in Whitefish, a one-day event featuring a slate of six speakers with backgrounds in avalanche forecasting, theory, backcountry mountain guiding, information processing, emergency decision-making and other current backcountry information.

The workshop targets backcountry professionals and recreational enthusiasts alike, and will whet the appetites of novice skiers and riders as well as backcountry aficionados.

The ninth-annual Northern Rockies Snow and Avalanche Workshop (NRSAW) on Nov. 16 runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. In addition to the roster of speakers, the workshop will include a raffle and vendors of avalanche safety gear, winter equipment and snow machines.

“The need for avalanche education and awareness continues to grow in Northwest Montana, with more and more people recreating in the winter backcountry,” Guy said. “Last season alone, there were 25 avalanche fatalities in the U.S, and in our region, we received reports of nine accidents that resulted in injuries, near misses, and one fatality. If you are planning on heading out into the backcountry this winter, this is a great opportunity to tune your avalanche knowledge and keep yourself, your friends, and your family safe.”

The purpose of the Flathead Avalanche Center is to prevent the loss of human life, limb, and property by human and naturally occurring avalanches through information and education to the community, and the workshop is designed to complement the center’s year-round efforts.

The Flathead Avalanche Center operates as a Type 1 Avalanche Center with four full-time forecast staff and a professional observer program. Currently, its resources allow for daily avalanche forecasts for three geographic regions encompassing 1 million acres: the Swan Range, the Whitefish Range and the Flathead Range and Glacier National Park.

Over the course of last winter, the Flathead Avalanche Center recorded eight near-misses or accidents in which seven people were caught and carried in avalanches. The tally includes all of the accidents reported by members of the parties involved, although Guy acknowledges that other near-misses or accidents go unreported.

“Thank you to all of the groups that contributed to learning opportunities by sharing,” Guy wrote in the annual report. “Read one or two reports, imagine yourself in similar circumstances and consider what you might do differently to avoid a similar incident. Being geeks, we distinguish between near-misses, incidents and accidents in our data; simply read these categories as grading from ‘whoa, that was close!’ to life-threatening or deadly.”

The most serious accident in the forecast, for example, occurred Jan. 5 when a cornice collapsed beneath a snowbiker standing on a ridge in the Swan Range. The rider fell off the ridge, down a cliff and came to a stop fully buried by the debris from the cornice and an avalanche triggered by the failing cornice. His partners dug him out and Two Bear Air winched him from the scene.

On the same day but outside the Flathead Avalanche Center’s geographic region, a snowmobiler was killed in a large, hard-slab avalanche near Teton Peak on the Rocky Mountain Front. He was fully buried by the slide while watching a rider higher on the slope. The victim was not wearing a beacon.

In addition to sharing avalanche accident and fatality data, speakers will present new research and discuss how community avalanche programs can flourish in the avalanche and backcountry recreation industries.

“Regional avalanche workshops like NRSAW are the best bang for your buck in avalanche education,” Lloyd Morsett, event chair and snow safety coordinator for Whitefish Mountain Resort, said.  “Come network, mingle with your backcountry peers and get excited for this coming winter.”

For more information on the Flathead Avalanche Center, or to purchase tickets to the workshop, visit flatheadavalanche.org.

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